Bob is an internet friend. I don’t know him but I like him. I think he’s trying to do good work for a good cause. So one reason I’m responding to him in this post is to show my appreciation for his thoughtfulness and willingness to engage. Back in the early days of e-Literate, there used to be good dialogues about EdTech happening on the internet. I don’t see that anymore. So when somebody like Bob takes the time to have a real dialogue, I want to show respect for that.
Unfortunately, I also have another motivator that conflicts with that collegial goal. For reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with Bob, I am fed up with the human obsession with easy answers to hard problems. More than usual, even. The amount of venture money pouring into EdTech for Web3, the Metaverse, and other silliness without any real understanding of it makes me retch. Just writing that last sentence made me throw up in my mouth a little.
I’ve gotten a few questions about why I wrote my first post about Web3 in the first place. Is it an expansion of e-Literate‘s coverage? No, it isn’t. If I’m going to write about human failures it’s only fair that I acknowledge my own. Anger has always been a big driver for me on e-Literate. I have been often driven to write about a topic because something about it pisses me off.
I tried to get control over that impulse. I really did. But it’s so satisfying. It’s my version of an easy answer. Turns out it’s a lot less effort and, honestly, a lot more remunerative to complain about the world than it is to change it. People like a good rant. It gives them something without asking for anything in return. My rants have gotten me praise. Heck, they’ve gotten me jobs. And they feel good.
So I’m sorry, Bob Bodily. This is not going to be the response you deserve. I swear, it’s not you. It’s me.
No use case
On Twitter, I challenged Bob to give me a use case. What educational problem can I solve with Web3 that I can’t practically solve some other way? Bob never gave me one. A use case requires a specific class of user with a specific need. It keeps us honest by focusing on problems rather than solutions first.
Unfortunately, the world is filled with solutions in search of problems. Take the Metaverse, for example. (Oops. Threw up in my mouth again.) I remember the craze around Second Life before it turned into a soft porn site for furries. Campuses spent large amounts of time and money building virtual classrooms, which were replicas of their actual classrooms so that students could put their virtual butts in virtual chairs and look around their classmates’ virtual heads at a virtual screen so that they could view actual PowerPoint slides. It was absurd. It deserved to die. And it did. Eventually. After enormous amounts of time and effort were poured into it.
OK, so virtual reality technology has evolved quite a bit since then. What are universities doing now that we can all buy dorky headsets that make fake things seem so much more vivid? Why, they’re building digital twin campuses. Of course. That’s what we call “innovation.” I still don’t know how changing “VR” to “Metaverse” is going to help any particular set of educational users in any particular way.
And why now? Because a rich jackass best known for undermining democracy in the United States decided that he could solve his reputational problem by rebranding his company to Meta and selling virtual clothing. All hail technological progress! Now those virtual heads you’ll have to look around will be wearing nice, expensive hats!
Oops. The mouth again.
(I did warn you.)
If you’re going to tell me that some new technology has the potential to revolutionize education, please be specific. Because everything is bullshit until there are specifics.
(I’m really, really sorry Bob. It’s not your fault. I swear.)
OK, if we don’t have a use case, then what do we have? Affordances. Things that the tech supposedly offers that have some utility that could be applied to some use case. What affordances does Web3 have? Let’s run down Bob’s list:
Blockchain, the heart of Web3, is supposed to be incredibly secure. You can’t hack it, and if you did, everybody would know immediately. It has an iron-clad audit trail.
Except that Web3 projects have lost more than $2 billion to hacks this year. So far. Halfway through the year.
It turns out that the biggest weakness in security is the humans. Stupid humans who forget to set a password, leading to the hacking of one billion identities. Or who click on links in texts like the one I got just the other day claiming to be from Amazon checking on a potential fraudulent purchase. Where the link, written in plain text, goes to a domain that is not Amazon.com.
Until we have blockchain for monkey brains, I’m not buying the security argument.
Nobody likes for the fate of education to be in the hands of jackass billionaires who want to show everybody how big their rockets are and are going to save the climate by emitting massive amounts of methane in order to launch William Shatner into space. Honestly people, that’s where we are. So I’m sympathetic to the desire to get away from this state of affairs.
Unfortunately, I see two reasons to be skeptical that Web3 will save us from this predicament. First, decentralization has been around for a long time. Tor and Napster were around in the 1990s. What were they most popularly used for? Sharing pirated music and porn. Peer-to-peer just means that the monkeys can talk to each other without a monkey in the middle. It doesn’t mean that they’ll be smarter monkeys. And second, people who know more about Web3 tech than I do worry that it is not, in fact, decentralized.
I can think of legitimate and important uses of decentralization technology. We could give students control over their own data, for example. We can do that using Solid, which is not a Web3 technology. But the very idea gives universities the hives.
The hardest problem preventing us from giving students control over their data is convincing the people who have control over it now that they should give it up. If you tell people that you can create a solution that convinces people to act differently, they won’t believe you. If you tell people you have a new magic technology that will solve “privacy,” they will.
Simpler developer experience
Being able to spend more time on features that matter and less time on essential but uninteresting infrastructure is valuable if and only if you know which features matter and why. If Web3 could solve that problem I’d be on board.
We already have an economic token. It’s called “money.” Ever since we went off the gold standard, we have lived in a token economy.
Beyond that, I need a use case. Explain to me, specifically, how a Web3 token economy changes things. Who is paying for what? Why are they doing that? Why are tokens easier than money? Why is this different and better than Kickstarter?
I do not understand.
Open Standards/Open APIs
I have participated in standards committees. I have been a paid consultant on efforts to kick-start standards efforts. The problem is never the technology.
It’s. The. Humans.
I have attended multiple hours-long sessions on how to properly represent a person’s name in a standard. I am not kidding. To be fair, it’s a much harder problem than you would think. But not nearly as hard as the humans made it.
Sorry, I’m not buying the interoperability thing yet. Give me specifics, please.
Permanent data storage
I have permanent data storage. It’s called AWS. It will last until our society collapses (which, to be fair, Jeff Bezos is speeding along a bit by putting massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere in order to launch William Shatner into space).
The major reason links break is that humans stop maintaining them or paying for them to be hosted.
I still don’t get it
Maybe that should have been my entire post. One sentence. “I still don’t get it.”
But I guess I don’t have to. While many of us are genuinely trying hard to solve human problems, our monkey brains keep gravitating toward technology-first solutions. Hacking human behavior at scale is too hard to think about, much less to actually try to accomplish.
So I’m pivoting. My new startup is going to revolutionize education by using Web3 in the Metaverse. I’m going to build simulated solutions to educational problems. You have to wear a goofy headset to see them, but your avatar will look spiffy. I’ll free you from the tyranny of big corporations (except mine, of course) through the magic of Web3. And by magic, I mean sleight-of-hand. Pay no attention to the virtual man behind the virtual curtain.
I’m taking investments now. Hard cash only, please. No cryptocurrency. That crap’s a pyramid scheme.
(Also, I’m really, really sorry, Bob Bodily. You didn’t deserve this.)